Kelly Perry

Kelly Perry | Chiang Mai, Thailand – Creative Writing, Neuroscience, and Medicine, Health, and Society, 2018

Kelly is a sophomore from Chiang Mai, Thailand. She is active in the Multicultural Leadership Council, VUcept, and Vanderbilt Circle K. For six weeks, Kelly will serve alongside locals in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, assisting with projects in the medical clinic, primary school, and nutrition unit. She is extremely honored to have this opportunity and excited to make an impact within and beyond her sphere of influence, to absorb all the richness South Africa has to offer, and to better appreciate this vast land of hope.

Blog Post One:

For Now.

Smile | noun | – a pleasant, kind, or amused facial expression, typically with the corners of the mouth turned up and the front teeth exposed (New Oxford American Dictionary)

We – Vanderbilt students wearing facemasks – stand outside his home as Sister Rachel, a social worker from the Soweto Hospice, conducts her routine treatment. She injects kanamycin into his arm and steps out with him by her side.

The 43-year-old man[1], diagnosed with multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis and labeled as HIV+, smiles when he glimpses us.

Sister Rachel begins describing the man’s condition to us. Her words – “no wife,” “windows closed, hot inside, perfect for infection,” “history of alcohol” – transform this man into a patient before our eyes. Not a patient of medicine, but a patient of the cycle of poverty – the most devastating, family-fragmenting, dehumanizing disease of all.

And yet he still smiles. Not a reluctant smile, but a genuine, heartfelt smile powerful enough to make me smile back at him. But he can’t see my smile. The facemask acts as a shield.

“Accept the prolonged training of the individual soul as an absolute necessity”

We – Vanderbilt students mask-less – board the flight to Johannesburg. On board my Delta Air Lines Flight 200 from Atlanta to Johannesburg, I see White faces ubiquitous among the passengers. Perhaps, the most burdensome moment is the wait outside the lavatory – one’s eyes fixed on “Occupied,” ready for the instant that breaks the interlude, the sign flashing “Vacant”. A passenger exits the lavatory, smiling at the one entering.

“Accept the prolonged training of the individual soul as an absolute necessity”

We – Vanderbilt students mask-less – step inside the craft unit of the Soweto Hospice with high energy and curiosity. The women become silent and lower their eyes toward the needlework, yet a smile inescapably slips into the corners of their rosy cheeks.

Each thread is so tirelessly sewn with care and tenderness, each bead of sweat an emblem of sacrifice…these women are the nuclei of Love and Hope. We smile back at them. But they don’t see.

“Accept the prolonged training of the individual soul as an absolute necessity”

A smile is an act of embrace, an attempt to say I see you, when two individuals do not share the same mother tongue. A smile is a validation of one’s existence…even when one exists below the poverty line while the other enjoys the fruits above. A smile may begin and end within the confines of one’s face, yet it also possesses the power to stretch beyond a momentary platform of connectedness. It holds the potential to become a vehicle for change, fueled by Love and Hope that weaves two lives together in a way that uplifts both.

A smile is only the beginning. Perhaps, the passengers on Delta Flight 200 will never witness the suffering of individuals like the 43-year-old man. Perhaps, they will continue to smile only at one another. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Someday, a child will receive the education she deserves. Someday, a man will have access to preventative healthcare and be made aware of what an illness entails. Someday, the disease of poverty will be eradicated, one step at a time. Until then, my heart beats to Gandhi’s mantra of Love and Hope, coupled with patience:

“Accept the prolonged training of the individual soul as an absolute necessity”

[1]Name omitted to protect privacy.


Blog Post Two:

A place of peace.

A food parcel consists of the following:

  • 1 bag of sugar
  • 1 bag of maize
  • 1 bar of body soap
  • 1 bar of soap to wash clothes
  • 1 package of five tea bags
  • 1 can of baked beans
  • 1 can of minced meat or fish

A family may only receive one food parcel per week, unless a member falls ill or has a baby.

Ubuntu is a living abstraction that breathes compassion into South African community. How can such a society – built on harmony and love – be riddled with such violence, inequality, and hatred?

Sometimes, the individuals make eye contact. Other times, any potential for human connection is lost and all they see is the half loaf of bread.

When the hungry men realize there may not be enough bread for everyone, they break from the line. A mob forms at the entrance of the nutrition unit.

Women are pushed over and the babies on their backs begin to cry. When the situation becomes uncontrollable, Auntie Joyce flies out the door. She shoves the men aside, positioning them into a line while they cower back inferiorly.

What made me lower my eyes was the fact that the workers in the nutrition unit looked unfazed, hardly reacting to this mob-formation.

Auntie Joyce ran out by instinct – or was it by routine, or both?

I asked Tobeka, one of the nutrition unit workers, if this happens often. “At least once a week,” she replied.

There is never enough bread.

It is more than a lesson of gratitude – more than “be thankful you can eat toast for breakfast everyday”. It is a lesson of reality, of the depravity and injustice that exists on this earth, driving men and women and children to fight against each other for one basic need – food.

Missionvale Care Center is the symptom of a system that neglects individuals, feeding funds into the mouths of corporations and extravagant means of development instead. It is the product of one individual’s – Sister Ethel’s – recognition of the power of a single human being. Change must occur at the individual level, and Sister Ethel has ensured that love and care are being delivered to those within and beyond the Care Center’s embrace.

One half loaf of bread, one food parcel at a time.

There is never enough bread, but there is a start.

For now, the need to survive is center stage; further down the path, the need to educate will take the spotlight.

At a glance, Ubuntu may have turned from a living abstraction to simply an abstraction, but the Aunties’ tender love, the children’s laughter interspersed between the claps of hand games, the melodies of praise floating from Missionvale Primary’s choir practices, the voices of concentration as students recite the alphabet…these are the threads that will stitch society into a place of peace once more.


Blog Post Three:

Mothers and Sisters

“Lizzie, someday I’ll have a car and we’ll drive around everywhere!” Thobeka exclaimed to her five-year-old sister, Lizalise.

They both laughed and imagined all the places they could go.

Today, Lizzie couldn’t go on a field trip with her peers because Thobeka couldn’t afford to send her. She was sad at first but listened and nodded quietly as Thobeka explained their situation to her with openness and honesty.

When Lizzie was two and Thobeka twenty, their mother died. Thobeka, now a 23-year-old woman working at the nutrition unit, delayed her own education and devoted her physical and mental energy into raising her sister. Currently, Thobeka is in the process of beginning her university education, but barriers with funding and resources are constantly on her mind.

On Tuesday, Lizzie and I first laid eyes on one another. The smiles and funny faces exchanged between the two of us tore down the wall erected by our different mother tongues. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5” were the melodies heard at the back of the nutrition unit – Lizzie counting the tea bags with me packaging them alongside her.

She is a bright beam of light filled with endless curiosity. Thobeka realized this from the beginning and wishes to provide Lizzie with everything she herself did not have, including a quality education.

When I listed Missionvale Care Center as my primary choice and was fortunate enough to be assigned to work there, I did not expect to receive such an immense amount of unconditional love, one that most evidently brims from the corners of Lizzie’s smile. I did not expect to desperately seek peace on a regular basis, stealing deep breaths here and there. I did not expect to be simultaneously emptied and filled. Most of all, I did not expect to add mothers and sisters into my family.

As much as I love the sound of that last sentence, there is something incredibly wrong with it.

Mothers and sisters.

In the bread line last week, women were shoved by men when they realized there wasn’t going to be enough bread. Boyfriends leave their girlfriends after impregnating and infecting them with HIV. Teen pregnancy is prevalent, and those sacrificing the most are women. Love and sharing are at one end, but the line that separates these entities from excessive sacrifice is thin. In a society that values community, women are automatically placed underneath all else when tragedy strikes and the community is unable to cope. Missionvale Care Center openly embraces all human beings, yet those under the Center’s umbrella of immediate care are women.

The women I’ve interacted with are far from weak. They need immediate care because their environment lacks necessary resources. Labeled as inferior at birth, they watched from the sidelines as their brothers received a good education. Thobeka knows and understands the poverty cycle and wishes to detach Lizzie from it. Her answer is loud and clear: a quality education.

Lizzie’s annual school fees are ~ 600 Rand (~$40). With her job at the nutrition unit, Thobeka is just able to cover this minimum fee and must allocate funds to other necessities such as the electricity bill and Lizzie’s storybooks. Someday, Thobeka will have a car. And someday, she will drive Lizzie around everywhere. Until then, these statements are only fruits of the imagination.


Blog Post Four:

Below is a letter I wrote to my Missionvale mother, Auntie Rachel. She works in the Father Christmas unit of Missionvale Care Center, devoting an entire year to assemble presents for over 4,000 children and teenagers.
Dear Auntie Rachel,

Meeting you has made me fortunate enough to gain another mother figure in my life. You embody selflessness, patience, forgiveness, strength, and love in such a way that I only hope to mirror. From the way you carefully inspect each toy that goes into a present to the blessings you give each gift to the manner with which you treat those who volunteer next to you to your sincere appreciation for all donations that arrive at Missionvale Care Center…Auntie Rachel, you are a symbol of Mother Christmas.

I hope you realize how much you mean to me and tens of thousands of other individuals whose lives you’ve touched with your presents and presence. You are so busy providing others with your love and warmth that I only wish you gave yourself the same comforts.

Each year, you assemble over 4,000 presents. You gather something out of nothing – bits and pieces of donations here and there, tie each present with a bread clip, and wrap all presents as close to Christmas as possible so that the wrapping paper looks nice and crisp on Christmas Day. You do all of this with a smile on your face, pour your heart and soul into each present and each human being you encounter, hoping that those who receive your love will smile back.

Auntie Rachel, we all smile back at you. I know that when I smile at you, thousands of other individuals – babies, children, and mothers and fathers – smile with me. You are providing an opportunity for children and teenagers to receive a present – most likely their only present – that not only consists of shoes, a shirt, and small trinkets and toys, but holds the most valuable gift of all: love and acknowledgement. Each gift is wrapped with an appreciation for the child’s existence on this earth, whispering to them, “You matter. You are loved.”

I know you’ve had a multitude of challenges in your life, times when you weren’t sure you’d be able to make it through. I am so thankful you did, Auntie Rachel. You are a living angel with a heart that keeps growing as you keep giving. My only wish is that you give to yourself too.

It is hard for me to believe that I’ve only known you for four weeks. You have impacted me in a way that no one has done so before, and I can’t express to you how grateful I am to know you.

Thank you for being my living angel and my mother figure. You matter and you are loved.

I love you always,


P.S. I miss you already and can’t wait until the day we meet again. You will forever be in my thoughts and prayers.

Perry_Auntie Rachel
Auntie Rachel and Kelly Perry

Blog Post Five: Post-Service Reflection

see beyond

Perched atop a rock in Mossel Bay, I marvel at the colors painted across the sky. Seagulls fly above while seals dance below.

Overhead & beneath; stillness & movement.


I am blanketed by silence as Auntie Rachel and I hug goodbye, yet brimming with loud memories of laughter, tears, and happiness shared between us.

Silence & sound; instant & expanse of time.


I can analyze my experience in South Africa as a constellation of juxtapositions: I have, they have not; they have, I have not. I can state that South Africa is a land of contrasts: Hyde Park’s luxury not far from the poverty of Soweto; Summerstrand and Missionvale, White and Black, etc etc.

In fact, I can even claim that the entire African continent is impoverished, adhering to the “Eat all the food on your plate, think of the starving children of Africa” mindset, perpetuating the stereotype of depicting all of Africa as a land of helplessness and decay, while I sit and validate my privilege and further examine the contrasts between them and me.

These claims have deep historical roots tied to colonialism and slavery; today, they pave the way for the continuous breeding of the White savior complex, among other notions– painting an image of the African continent as a land of needs. Thus, further division is erected, intentionally and unintentionally, when viewing the world through the lens of juxtaposition – be it differences within South Africa itself (Hyde Park and Soweto) or contrasts between Africa and Europe.

I am not stating that these differences do not matter…they are the root cause of service delivery protests, they fuel institutional corruption, feed on those underprivileged and increase inequity. However, during my six-week period of adopting a sponge-like existence of curiosity and observation in South Africa, I realized that minimalizing experiences down to polarity, allowing ourselves to only see divergence, is equal parts a blessing and a curse.

It is a blessing that acts as a perilous shield, allowing outsiders to step back and view South Africa as a generalized dichotomy: Black and White, unemployment and prosperity – positioning these entities into a cycle…where one entity breeds another: lack of education leads to unemployment, lack of adequate housing leads to manifestation of illness, etc.

It is easier to analyze in this manner. There is one cause and one effect, something on both sides of the equation. Yet, if we view South Africa as solely existing on dichotomies, we only receive fragments of the whole story, bits of the truth – resulting in failure to arrive at the intersections and complexities interweaving a society.

During South Africa’s apartheid era, the country was riddled with signs: Net Blankes (“Whites Only”), Nie-Blanke Vroue (“Non-European Women”), Blanke Gebied (“White Area”). Individuals of color were stripped of any sense of dignity, their value and self-worth perforated – dehumanized – by acts and thought-systems of hatred. Today, relics of the nation’s apartheid past still plague its citizens through various mechanisms, be it education, housing, healthcare – institutional structures manifested with racist undertones. Today, Black citizens struggle with the implications and nuances of living within a Black body. Viewing South Africa as a land of opposites prevents one from fully seeing beyond what is under the surface; thus, without realizing, we commit to the very labels and signs that existed when South Africa was under apartheid, even through a lens of good intentions.

A society holds much more than what meets the eye. It is interwoven with elaborate intricacies that overlap, merge, interact, and repel. Through service learning and observation, I found that the best means of unraveling this constellation is through storytelling and empathy.

Storytelling is the single, most humane force powerful enough to break down walls between individuals. Empathy wills us to listen, to attempt to understand. Just as Einstein claims that humans are endowed with a passion to comprehend science, I believe this passion extends toward understanding the human beings around us in their entirety – and thus, society in its entirety.

We arrive in South Africa as student volunteers – ambassadors, as the Missionvale Care Center women call us. We witness on a daily basis the innate inequalities that pervade South African society. We see suffering – hunger, thirst, poverty – coupled with either hope or hopelessness; we talk, we feel, we reflect; we witness love and selflessness over and over again; we are adopted into families. However, we are not center-stage; we are here to contribute what we can within (and beyond) our sphere of influence, to recognize the assets of a community – not only its faults and cracks. We have a responsibility to steer clear from generalizations – to view the large “isms” (i.e. classicism, racism, etc.) and the details that paint the constellation we see.

Andrew Johnson, our “tour guide”, driver, and father figure, urged us to shift our gaze from “I” to “we”: to look in the mirror and see beyond ourselves. I will carry his message with me for as long as I live.


Perched atop a rock in Mossel Bay,

My small self sits, seeing whole:

Perry_Mossel Bay Sunset


3 Comments Add yours

  1. ed nichols says:

    Janice and I saw the same people in Uganda nearly ten years ago now and I still see them in my mind almost every day like it was yesterday and wonder at their smiles and what they mean. You will too ten years from now. Thank you for sharing your lovely post and feelings with us and please remember these people and never stop trying to understand the meaning of their smiles. Ed


    1. Kelly Perry says:

      Thank you so much for your comment and kind words, Mr. Nichols! And thank you for everything else you’ve done to make this trip possible for me. I look forward to finally meeting you and your wife in person. Have a great week!


  2. ed nichols says:

    “There is never enough bread, but there is a start.” Isn’t it this way with everything? But you have to start. And I am so glad that you have and that this trip may have helped. And you found an incredible role model too, Auntie Rachel. So time well spent and I look forward to seeing you this Fall. Ed

    P.S. Your last three posts literally moved me to tears. We are so blessed. There but for the grace of God….


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